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Sam and Max Hit the Road: One of the Great Comic Book Games Ever

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Steve Purcell has done just about everything, and he's done it with Sam and Max -- a six-foot dog and a toothy rabbit with a taste for carnage. Purcell's not quite a legend, but he probably should be. In the late 1980s, he briefly freelanced for Marvel, and on his own he created the comic book Sam & Max Freelance Police. (As comic book historian Don Markstein explains, "Sam and Max weren't traditional funny animals, in that they were brutally violent.") When he got out of college, he got hired to work as a video game artist at LucasArts, one of the two best video game studios in the world at that time. He turned the comic into a classic point-and-click video game, 1993's Sam & Max Hit the Road, à la Secret of Monkey Island, which he had worked on. In 1997, it became a Fox Kids television series. Then he went to work at Industrial Light & Magic, and later Pixar. After several abortive attempts at a sequel at Lucasarts, he brought the characters to Telltale Games and began to develop sequels there, as had happened with Monkey Island. He started a webcomic there too, which was nominated for an award.

So, Purcell's done lots and lots of cool things. But nothing's cooler than Hit the Road. A private school principal once told me that in the history of literature, the greatest translation of all time was the English translation of Waiting for Godot, because Samuel Beckett had personally translated it from French, in which he'd originally written it, into English, his mother tongue. Well, Steve Purcell just might be the Samuel Beckett of comic book video games. His participation in the project ensured that the game's artwork and humor were both remarkably true to the sociopathic glee of the original comics, as well as to the relentless absurdism of Monkey Island, making fun of everything including the very format of the game. When you try to pick up a person, Sam refuses, saying, "I don't indiscriminately use people...except Max." When you repeatedly click with your cursor to try to pick up something that can't be picked up, Sam explains that he can't, getting more and more angry until he breaks down crying, at which point Max says, "Now you've done it. You've broken Sam's spirit by trying to pick up that dumb object. In fact, if I didn't find his pathetic sobbing so amusing, I'd come out and rip your limbs off."

The plot is sort of a mystery, and they're sort of detectives. (Sam's blue suit and blue fedora and vague sense of responsibility mark him as a shamus; Max's major contribution is a complete willingness to throw himself into harm's way. At the beginning of the game, they get an assignment to go to a carnival, where they are told to retrieve an escaped Bigfoot. The game map is a map of the United States, and many of the locations are based on real places -- including a convenience store chain based on Stuckey's, the world's largest ball of twine, and Mount Rushmore. They travel around finding clues about the runaway, and the Bigfoot-addicted country-western singer who's after him. The game surrounding that is as densely packed with jokes, gags, and non sequiturs as a Zucker brothers movie. When was the last time you played a video game that was laugh out loud funny -- repeatedly?

Rating: 90

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.